Archive for July, 2013|Monthly archive page

The Wild North

“Bear!”

It was the Canada Day long weekend, I was in the wilderness somewhere north of Vancouver, and I’d just stumbled across my very first bear in the wild.

The trip had been a spur-of-the-moment decision, brought about by the recent purchase of a Jeep, my boyfriend heading overseas for two weeks, and a growing desire to get used to driving on the right-hand side of the road without my boyfriend’s irritating habit of screaming every time I accidentally headed into oncoming traffic.

I don’t plan my holidays at the best of times. Not because I believe they should be spontaneous, but because I’m lazy, and it requires far too much effort.

Consequently, my “plan” for this last-minute trip basically consisted of heading north and camping in provincial parks for a few days, before turning around and heading home.

So, on the morning of my trip, I looked at a map of the area I was be heading to, just to make sure there was a park within range.

Ha. It turns out that it’s all provincial parks. Then the north pole. Other than that, just wilderness. And bears. Lots and lots of bears.

After carefully considering my options*, I decided on Joffre Lakes, a park just north of Whistler with a camp ground, some lakes (probably), and a fun 12km hike up the side of a mountain that I was kidding myself I would do on Sunday.

That afternoon, I dropped my boyfriend at the airport and began my voyage north. The first leg of the journey was on the Sea to Sky Highway, a picturesque stretch of road that winds along the west coast of BC, from the harbours of Vancouver to the foothills of Whistler, offering breathtaking views of the bays and islands of the Georgia Straits.

Once I was north of Whistler, the other traffic melted away, and the road became eerily deserted. I pulled into the small town of Pemberton to refuel and pick up some final supplies. Pemberton is  a quaint, quiet town, with two main streets and a decidedly laid-back, rural feel to it. It was also the last town I would see for a few days; from here the highway would become a steep, winding mountain pass until I reached Lillooet, where I would turn my car south, and head back towards home.

A mix of small farms and cottages dotted the side of the road, while untamed forest crowded in from all sides.

Around a bend in the road, I noticed an odd black heap at the side of the road. As I passed, the heap raised its head and looked at me.

Holy crap, it was a black bear.

Habit from years of driving around Australia’s suicidal marsupials made me slam on the car brakes, just in case it panicked and ran in front of the car.

It didn’t. In fact, the bear seemed so spectacularly uninterested by me that after a brief glance it just went back to rummaging around the bushes as my car passed by.

The encounter had been so unexpected I hadn’t had a chance to take a photo. I briefly considered stopping and heading back with my camera, but then my brain kicked in and I decided not to commit suicide by bear.

A few miles further along, I saw another black bear. This one was climbing the high guard railings on the side of a bridge. As I watched, he carefully climbed up one side, he swung himself around on the top, and then lowered himself down, his long black body looking eerily human in both form and movement as he clambered down, before he dropped onto all fours and padded across the road to disappear into the bush at the side of the road.

I was glad I’d brought bear spray.

I was barely two hours from Vancouver, yet the sense of remoteness and isolation was overwhelming. I hadn’t seen another car since Pemberton, and my cell phone had long since lost reception. All around me was simply mountains, forests and lakes. I hadn’t realised such a lonesome wilderness existed so close to Vancouver.

A lone grey wolf awaited me around the next corner. He watched me with yellow eyes as I drove past, before languidly turning and trotting back into the woods by the side of the road.

The sun started its slow decline towards the horizon, and around me, the snow-capped mountains tinged pink in the late evening light. Rivers and lakes, thick with driftwood brought down from the recent floods in Alberta, flanked the narrow, winding road.

I decided to stop my car by a river to take some photos.

As I meandered happily through the long grass in search of a nice spot to take a photo, I remembered something I’d read about bear attacks. Namely that most of them happen by rivers, where bears can’t hear humans approaching, and get startled.

Right. So, exactly the situation I was in.

Fortunately for me, I had bear spray.

Unfortunately for me, however, that bear spray was carefully packed away in the boot of the car.

“Um? Hello? Any bears?” I called out “Uh, Hi. Just wanted to let you know I’m here. So. Yeah. Don’t get startled and eat me or anything”

I waited. Silence. Okay good. No bears. I mean, apart from the two I’d already seen.

Back on the road, I was only a short distance from Joffre Lakes, when three small tawny coyote cubs trotted out into the middle of the road.

This was getting ridiculous.

The sky was gradually darkening when I finally arrived at Joffre Lakes.

I pulled the car into the gravel car park and – again, carefully forgetting the bear spray – began looking around for the camp ground.

It wasn’t immediately apparent.

There were no tents or RVs in sight, and no obvious clearing for a campground. There was just a small entrance to a hiking trail leading upwards.

Odd.

I found a map of the park and carefully studied it.

Oh. The campsite was at the end of the 12km hike. At the top of the mountain.

Aaaah. Right. Well, that wasn’t going to happen tonight.

Maybe I should do a little more planning next time.

It was almost dark, and I had nowhere to sleep. Without even cell reception to find another park, it seemed my option was to push on through the mountain pass tonight and find a motel in Lillooet. Maybe it was for the best; the thought of putting up a tent before sleeping on the cold, hard ground wasn’t appealing. Neither was the idea of using a long drop. Or brushing my teeth next to my car using bottled water. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more of a pain-in-the-ass this whole camping thing sounded.

In Lillooet, I could find a nice motel with clean(ish) soft sheets and indoor plumbing.

Then, as I began my drive through the night, I saw a sign for a Provincial Recreation Area. A small dirt track led through a gap in the forest. Curious, I followed it.

The road lead to clearing, where half a dozen camp sites nestled beneath the towering pine trees. Beside it, a river rushed down from the mountains. It was beautiful. It was peaceful. It was where I was going to sleep that night.

I set up my tent in the last of the dying light, while all around me campers relaxed by the glow of their fires and the smell of dinner drifted on the faint breeze.

Now I remembered the appeal of camping.

Lillooet and indoor plumbing would just have to wait.

* I liked the name

I do enjoy sunsets when I don’t get eaten by bears

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Here Be Bears (A Cautionary Tale)

Summer had finally arrived in Vancouver. I had a jeep, and – in true Canadian tradition – there was a long weekend coming up.

It was time for a road trip.

My plan was simple: drive north, camp and hike in the provincial parks of Northern British Columbia, then turn the jeep around and head back to work on Tuesday.

My boyfriend was heading overseas for a few weeks, so I would be traveling alone, however I grew up tramping in New Zealand (as we call hiking – to the amusement of every other English speaking nation), so I wasn’t concerned about heading off into the wilderness by myself.

I was, however, slightly worried about bears.

New Zealand doesn’t really have any animals that can kill you (other than other humans). This means that not dying when you go hiking mostly depends on you not being an idiot.

Bears, however… bears were definitely something I wanted to learn more about before heading into the bush.

There are about half a million bears in Canada, and approximately 30% of them live in British Columbia. There are even frequent bear sightings in North Vancouver.

Because of this, Canada has a lot of very helpful resources for hiking in bear country, so I began avidly researching how to not become a Monday morning news headline.

The first thing I did was learn how to tell what kind of bear is what.

There are two main species of bears here, the black bear and the grizzly bear. Black bears are smaller, commoner, and less likely to kill you. Grizzly bears, on the other hand, are bigger and much more likely to kill you.

The two types look similar at first, however there are several key differences between them; grizzlies have a hump between their shoulder blades, their noses are more concave, and they have much longer, lighter claws.

Unfortunately, I’m guessing that if I’m able to tell what species the bear is by its claws, it’s probably kind of irrelevant by that point.

I then learned what to do if I came across a bear. In most instances, backing away while speaking calmly works.

If that doesn’t work, and the bear begins acting aggressively to defend itself, apparently you should play dead.

Then I got to the next paragraph:

If an attack is prolonged or the bear starts eating you, it is no longer being defensive and it is time to fight back.

Okay. Thanks for clarifying that.

I was pretty sure I didn’t want to get to the “bear eating me” stage before trying to fight back, so I began looking into bear spray.

Bear spray is basically pepper spray. On steroids.

This is where things get interesting, as pepper spray is a prohibited weapon in BC; it’s illegal to own, carry or use it. Bear spray, on the other hand, is considered to be one of the best ways to stop a bear attack. So the BC government found themselves in a bit of a quandary – they wanted to encourage people to carry bear spray when hiking, yet still keep pepper-spray and mace illegal.

What’s a government to do?

A bit of odd legislation, it turns out; they kept pepper spray prohibited, but legalised the much more potent bear spray. You’re now allowed to own pepper-spray as long as it’s strong enough to stop a bear.

Of course.

So, a few days before my trip, I headed down to the local outdoor store to pick up a canister. I filled in a form with my name and address, then signed a statement promising not to use the bear spray on another person, or carry it within the city. It was all very trusting.

Of course, within twenty-four hours, I’d broken both of those promises.

Friday night came, and I began getting ready for my road trip. My bear spray was enclosed in shrink-wrap, numerous plastic safety catches and several tags. My boyfriend, being a smart person, but obviously not smart enough to realise I’m sometimes quite dumb, commented that I should make sure my bear spray is ready and that I know how to use it before going hiking.

I thought this made sense. So, I did what any intelligent person would do*. I cut the shrink-wrap off, removed the safety catches and tags, and lightly depressed the small button on top.

Three seconds later, my boyfriend and I were outside our apartment, gasping, crying, and choking for breath.

In hindsight, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting to have happen. Maybe a tiny wee puff of slightly peppery-scented vapour would waft out of the canister? No. Instead, a highly pressurised jet of mustard gas, designed to incapacitate 350kg of pissed off bear from ten metres away, burst out of the canister and into the stainless steel kitchen sink a metre in front of me.

I had just managed to pepper-spray myself. Those of you that know me probably aren’t all that surprised.

I’d always kind of wondered what it would be like to be pepper-sprayed. Not enough to ever try it, but just enough to wonder if it was really that bad.

Yes. Yes it is.

My throat was coated in sulphur, and every time I tried to inhale, my windpipe tried to turn itself inside out. My eyes were clenched tightly shut with tears streaming from them; I couldn’t open them without searing pain. Even my arms and lips burned from where the vapours had landed on my unexposed skin.

In hindsight, I probably should have tried that somewhere with ventilation. Like, the forest.

For the next several hours, my boyfriend and I camped outside our apartment; occasionally braving inside to see if the toxic gas had dissipated enough for us to go home.

Eventually, in the wee small hours of Saturday morning, we could re-enter our apartment without trying to cough up our throats.

Apologising profusely, I reattached the safety catch to the offending bear spray, wrapped it in about eight towels, and – now terrified of it – shoved it down the bottom of my bag, where it would stay for the entire duration of my hiking trip – including the two times I actually saw bears.

But on the bright side, at least now I knew it worked.

*I mean, apart from read the instructions.

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